Why is China buying the J-10 instead of the JF-17?

FC-1 Xialong, more appropriately known as JF-17 is a joint creation of the Pakistani Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Corporation of China.

China bought the J-10 over the JF-17 because the J-10 is much faster, more manoeuvrable, more capable and more expensive. Pakistan Air Force started the JF-17 program to come up with new and cheaply built fighters.

Historical Perspective

Back in the late 1990s, the Pakistan Air Force was still reeling from the effects of the sanctions and embargoes slapped on Pakistan in the early 1990s. It was getting difficult for the PAF to maintain its’ cutting edge’, i.e. the F-16 Block 52, of which Pakistan had 40 aircraft. Attrition and lack of spares had brought the number down to around 28, divided between two squadrons. The rest of the PAF consisted of old-generation but rebuilt A-5s, F-6s, F-7s and Mirages, which the PAF had the largest fleet in the world and had systematically upgraded through the ROSE program.

Despite its focus on excellent pilot training, the PAF was beginning to feel its offensive and defensive capabilities diminishing. In light of India’s acquisition of Su-30s from Russia and its technological upgrades, the establishment of the HAL Tejas program by its arch-nemesis India, the PAF had to remove its old generation aircraft with a new generation aircraft. Still, the aircraft must be cheap enough to build and deploy in large numbers and which could effectively fulfil the capability requirements of all the aircraft that it was replacing.

The PAF also wanted authority over the platform to equip it with the avionics and systems of its choice. Lacking the financial and technical capabilities to design an aircraft itself, the PAF turned to Pakistan’s trusted friend, China.

Design Phase

The timing was perfect; China wanted to dismantle the production line F-7 in the late 1990s, and Pakistan wanted something very cheap and quickly built. After a heavy reengineering of the MiG-21 (the F-7 in Chinese service), the Super-7 or the future JF-17 Thunder or FC-1 Xialong was born.

The design stage began in 1999. CAD techniques reduced the design time, and decoupling the avionics from the airframe development helped speed up the program. The first JF-17 prototype flew in China in 2003. Pakistan Air Force set aside $500 million for the program cost.

China already has avionics, radar, missiles and a working Russian-made engine, — Chengdu only has to work on refining the F-7 airframe that looks modern and can accommodate new avionics, missiles and engine.

The R&D continued, and six prototypes were built, which were improved considerably from the first one. The first operational JF-17s were assembled in Pakistan in early 2007 and were publicly revealed on the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad in March 2007. The first squadrons became operational in 2010. To date, four squadrons have been raised, with the fifth expected to become operational in the next few months.

Defense Budget

Pakistan is a small country that needed to replace its decades-old fighters with many new, more modern, simple, cheap fighters to fill their needs!

Pakistan has a lower annual defense budget of $8.8 billion a year, and China has a whopping $209 billion budget.

Now, had the PAF tried to design a cutting edge aircraft in-house or procure a highly advanced design, it would have encountered political and financial delays. This would have allowed the PAF’s capability to degrade further.

With the JF-17, not only did the PAF get a platform that it can develop and upgrade according to its requirements, it received the valuable experience required for managing such a vast and dynamic program.

JF-17 doesn’t fit the bill for China

The JF-17 was derived from the MiG-21, upgraded with a better avionics range, load-carrying capability, and inspired by Pakistan’s experience flying American F-16.

On the other hand, China is a vast country and need more modern fighter bombers with more extended range and carrying more weapons than the J-17. The J-10 is much larger and more complex than the J-17. China is making use of the knowledge of building the J-7 to build a trainer and light attack jet, the JL-9, among others.

J-10, on the other hand, is a much larger fighter and expensive fighters. JF-17 is tailor-made for Pakistan and easy to maintain compared to a Fishbed airframe, which Pakistan can already build and maintain. The JF-17 is affordable, less complex to maintain and complements existing F-16 fighters of PAF.

The PLA Air Force is fighting many fronts; at least, it has to patrol the vast South China Sea, East China ocean, Taiwan Straits and compete with 22 nations, especially Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States. China has $209 billion to spends on its military, and it can splash the cash for the requirements.

Since the 1990s, China’s military planners have gravitated away from shorter range fighter platforms, such as the earlier J-6 and J-7, and towards the larger, more multirole fighter such as J-10 and fighter-bombers such as the J-11/Su-27/Su-30, and now the J-20.

It comes down to deploying a smaller, more sophisticated (more expensive) fleet that is still capable of patrolling China’s vast air space and frontiers. The J-10 and J-11A fit that requirement. The much smaller JF-17, while appropriate for a smaller nation like Pakistan, does not fit China’s needs.

The JF-17 is designed solely to cater to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) needs and thus procured by the PAF, while the J-10 is designed for Chinese Air Force needs and thus procured by the PLAAF.

Learning Curve For PAC

JF-17 is not garbage; it is superior to Pakistan’s arch-nemesis India’s Tejas in some aspects but inferior to FA-50 in many aspects. It’s a win-win situation for Pakistan, not all bad news. It is also a good learning experience for Pakistan on how to produce their jets. Pakistan already has block 1 and 2 versions of their jet. It is home-grown and affordable and able to do the job. Pakistan is not looking for costly technology jets but relatively quick and easy getting jets.

The research and development carried out for JF-17 is lead by Pakistan, but China does have a share in the aircraft sales because PAC doesn’t have enough production capacity to meet its requirement for around 30–40 aircraft per year. Plus, with all the upgrades and overhauls, CIAC is helping Pakistan with that.

Pakistan is never looking to buy something off the shelf. Pakistan, in the future as well, wants to build its modern 5th generation fighter. It could consider an already existing platform and develop its own thing around it but not buy off the shelf.

Both Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIC) contributed to the design of the JF-17 airframe, taking into consideration Pakistan’s accumulated experience in operating the F-16 Falcon and F-7PG/J-7, incorporating the favorable aerodynamic aspects of both.

Operational Requirements

In Pakistan’s operational context, this particular plane has fair capabilities to defend itself on its home turf, especially with advanced airborne warning systems such as Saab AEW&C deployed by the PAF. It would have an unlimited supply of spares and locally made ammunition. It’s likely to have top of the line Chinese missiles and is expected to be armed and integrated with Turkish missiles and targeting POD.

The PAF plans to induct a twin-seater version for enhanced operational capability and training, known as the JF-17B, by 2020. Preparations for a more advanced and technologically sophisticated block III version of the aircraft are underway. The AESA technology has been developed, the KLJ-7A, which can simultaneously track 15 targets and engage four targets.

PAF has extensive plans for future upgrades, purchased target pods from Turkey to configure JF-17 for ground attack, the JF-17’s BVR (beyond-visual-range) for upgrade configuration of maritime strike role through SD-10 and C-802 missiles.

The JF-17 fits the bill for countries like Nigeria, Myanmar, and Pakistan fighting insurgents and having border disputes with a neighbour.

Bang for bucks

J-10 is a medium weight combat aircraft, while JF-17 is a lightweight multirole fighter designed to replace the ageing fleet of the F-7, mirages and A-5. It is not as good as the South Korean FA-50, but their roles are comparable in terms of weapons they carry.

JF-17 now carry a BVR capable SD-10A missile. It has a range of about 100 kms. It can also carry sophisticated air to ground weaponry. It can also fire anti-ship missiles from hundreds of km away. The most part, for Pakistan, JF-17 can defend against HAL Tejas and MiG-29UPG.

To Summarize

It’s not a bad aircraft. It’s just an aircraft that is limited in range, technology and number of weapons it can carry but that doesn’t matter because the doctrine with which it is employed calls upon defending the airspace close to the border between India and Pakistan. Pakistan and India have a 2000 miles long border, and air bases are usually located between 50~60 miles from India’s border and within Pakistan.

JF-17 is NOT a F/A-18 Super Hornet; it will undoubtedly not be evolved as a deep penetration fighter-attack type aircraft. The PAF is likely to use missiles for that role. The PAF may be looking at F-16V Block 70 or Chengdu FC-20CE for those types of roles. This aircraft’s ground attack and air attack capabilities are decent, but it is certainly not in the League of any western 4.5 generation fighters.

The JF-17 is designed and built to fight insurgents and drop bombs on the neighbour’s house. It does the job cheaply!

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